Popular Science Monthly/Volume 72/January 1908/Some Recent Transmutations




IT would prove of little general profit to review the elaborate alchemical literature of the nineteenth century. It may be stated that in 1832 Schneider published in Halle a history of alchemy accepting the transmutation of the metals as accomplished by those aware of the necessary procedures. The study of alchemy prospered in France,[2] although it has generally been considered that the new chemistry, beginning, as it were, with Lavoisier, put down absolutely the probability of the transmutation of the metals. The affairs of the Alchemical Association of France, the successor of the Société Hermetique, founded by Albert Poisson, are controlled by the secretary-general, assisted by seven councilors, who hold an annual meeting. Numbered among the honorary members are the astronomer, Flammarion, and August Strindberg,[3] a Swedish resident in Austria.

Although Marignac[4] acknowledged that the habitual association in nature of groups of elements, as for example titanium, tantalum and columbium, offered one of the strongest proofs that can be found for the community of their origin, it is of conservative interest to observe that von Meyer, in that charming "History of Chemistry" of his,[5] says: "The final echoes of the alchemistic problem which had for so long a period of time held the cultured of every nation in a state of tension, and had even blinded eminent scientific men, only appear to die away during the last decades of the nineteenth century." This statement remains in the last edition of his book (1906), in which are recounted the discoveries of radioactive bodies and the transformations of the emanation coming from those unique substances.

We are well aware that the problem of transmutation of the elements is not solely of academic interest from the legends, courageous, tragic, fantastic, ludicrous or iniquitous, that have been handed down. Motives characterized by harsher terms than selfishness are usually attributed these days to those who apply themselves to changing the bountiful metals into our agreed standard of exchange, for, as a rule, such are thought, with and without reason, to be in no position to give adequate return for money advanced to perfect the methods which investors are assured will produce the desired results. Especially is this true of the possessor of so valuable a secret, who may alone soon place himself beyond financial concern through the agency the knowledge, which he seeks to share with a few preferred ones.

At the corresponding meeting of this section just ten years ago, my friend, the late Dr. H. Carrington Bolton, presented a paper on this subject,[6] dealing specifically with the publications of S. H. Emmens, of New York.

It has long been known that golden-yellow specks would occasionally show themselves in silver solutions, but could not be obtained at will. Probably this phenomenon has often led to a supposition that silver might be transmuted into gold. Silver can be converted wholly into this form by the reduction of silver tartrate by ferrous tartrate. The solutions must be rather dilute and must be freshly prepared. A red powder is precipitated; this changes to black, and on the filter has a bronze color. After washing, it is removed in a pasty condition and allowed to dry spontaneously. This form of silver is very permanent when dry. It dries into lumps resembling polished gold. By brushing a thick paste of this substance over clean glass, beautiful gold-colored mirrors are obtained. The stronger acids, even when much diluted, instantly convert this allotropic form of silver into normal gray silver; this is also effected by means of pressure.[7]

Using Lea's method, just described, as a starting point, Emmens[8] thought to extend Andrew's doctrine of critical temperatures. By "the combined effect of impact and very low temperature," the former being produced by his force engine, a substance was obtained which was claimed to be common to both gold[9] and silver, hence the name argentaurum. One ounce of silver was said to produce three quarters of an ounce of gold. It was stated that the chief source of expense incurred was in the time required for bringing about the desired molecular changes. A profit of at least $3 per ounce on all silver used was assured, however.

Sir William Crookes did not succeed, to his satisfaction, in repeating the work, although Dr. Emmens stated that during that year Dr. Cabel Whitehead, assayer to the mint in Washington, accepted six ingots of the alloy, approximately a thousand dollars in value.

It may not be amiss here to state that a severe criticism of Emmens's "Argentaurum Papers" appeared in Science the same year, written by Dr. R. S. Woodward. The libel suit instituted against the critic and Dr. J. McKeen Cattell, the "responsible editor," however, never came to issue.

A number of cases are on record illustrating the methods pursued in selling secret processes for the manufacture of gold. Accounts of many of these are in my possession as a result of the assiduous search on the part of my private assistant, Mr. W. A. Hamor. A recounting of them is scarcely suitable here. Suffice it to say, that a careful analysis of the motives actuating and methods pursued presents merely an inferior picture of the perfected practises we are gradually learning of as obtaining in that circle termed "high finance."

Among many communications reaching the writer, one is of more than passing interest. Mr. R. M. Hunter, of Philadelphia, has written concerning "synthetic gold" as follows:

I have so perfected the process that in my judgment, based upon my actual experience, gold may be manufactured at enormous profit, and to this end I have designed a plant to be erected in Philadelphia and am at this moment negotiating for the $500,000 capital for its erection. I realize that the public and most scientific men are adverse to belief in the possibility of such an enterprise, but I know what I am doing and can afford to allow public sentiment to follow its own course.

Enclosed with the letter was an affirmative affidavit. On request, Mr. Hunter promptly forwarded me samples of silver in which the gold is "growing" and some "grown-up" gold, said to have been produced by his secret process. I have not made analyses of the samples, which are here exhibited.

Any discussion of the transmutation of the elements must involve a clear understanding of what we mean by the term element. By agreement, chemists regard an element as a substance which shows a characteristic spectrum and a definite combining weight. That such characterization is inadequate, that the ground upon which the characterization is founded may be shifting sand, and not the firm rock we are wont to liken it to, need not involve the present topic, as the agreed basis suffices for our purpose.[10]

Work on transmutation has by no means been limited to efforts to prepare the noble metals. Fittica's[11] investigations on the action of ammonium compounds on phosphorus in the presence of air led him to the conclusion that a true transformation of phosphorus into arsenic takes place, and that arsenic appears to be a nitro-oxygen compound of phosphorus, namely, . The formation of arsenic from phosphorus appeared to be accomplished best under proper temperature conditions, according to the following reactions:


This is contrary to Flückinger's results on "black phosphorus," as the latter regarded this modification as arsenic, it is true, but considered that the phosphorus contained arsenic. Although Fittica claimed that his phosphorus was arsenic-free, Winkler[12] asserted that this could scarcely be the case, according to the work of Wittstock[13] and Hjelt.[14] The reaction should be written as follows:


Undaunted, Fittica[15] maintained that by varying the conditions antimony, as well, could be produced from phosphorus. As the result of the criticisms of Gyzander,[16] Noelting and Feuerstein,[17] Christomanos,[18] Gerack,[19] Arnold and Murach[20] and Councler[21] Fittica's case has been regarded as not proved.

With the discovery of the Becquerel rays, eventuating in the isolation of radium compounds by the Curies, lines of investigation were opened up leading to truly remarkable disclosures. According to the agreement, certainly radium may be regarded an element, as it has a characteristic spectrum and well-defined atomic weight as recently verified by Madame Curie.[22]

Radium compounds give off an emanation, a gaseous body, as discovered by Rutherford. Ramsay assigns it an atomic weight of 216.5, but no definite spectrum has been assigned the emanation, although it has been plotted by Ramsay and Collie. Rutherford and his associates have shown that the emanation passes through a number of changes giving Radium-A, Radium-B, etc. So far, definite atomic values and spectral data have not been obtained for these transitory disintegration products of the emanation. The lives of some of them are very short. The greatest dignity we may assign them is meta-element.

The formation of helium from the emanation was first shown by Ramsay and Soddy, and later confirmed by Indrikson, by Débierne, by Curie and Dewar, by Giesel and by Himstedt and Meyer. Helium, a conventional element which is devoid of any evidence of chemical affinity, is produced by or from radium, a conventional element, but the most active substance known. This occurs when the emanation is dry, and we have reason for assuming that the emanation may in reality be an active allotropic form of helium, as ozone is of oxygen.

Recently we have been thoroughly aroused again by Ramsay, who in collaboration with Cameron[23] has not only verified the above statement, but proved that when the emanation is allowed to traverse its downward career in the presence of water, neon and not helium is the gas produced. If the degradation of the emanation be in the presence of a solution of a pure copper salt, sulphate or nitrate, argon and no helium is produced. The emanation becomes one conventional element or another, dependent upon its environment. Helium, neon and argon, with the respective weights, 4, 20 and 40, are produced from the supposititious allotrope of the one with the lowest atomic weight.

We know of no case in which any one of these three obtained from other sources has been converted into the other; nor have we been informed as to whether or not the neon and argon thus produced from the emanation subsequently change into helium.

In this connection it may be stated that Meigen,[24] calling attention to the amount of energy set free in the formation of helium—about 109 great calories for a gram-atom of helium—states that any attempts at reversing this process are rendered hopeless. Nothing is hopeless in science. In fact, many of Ramsay's most fruitful researches have been in the investigation of the unlikely. Can it be, on the other hand, however, that the emanation is in reality a compound of these gases which are characterized by their inertness? Those who have worked with compounds of the rarer elements well know that their scission follows one direction or another, dependent upon ever so slight variations in procedure. If the emanation be, in fact, a compound, which is not likely, it is an endothermic compound involving energy with an order of magnitude far beyond anything with which we are familiar in ordinary chemical reactions. The total heat given off by one cubic centimeter of emanation is equal to about ten million gram calories, or nearly four million times as much heat as produced by the explosion of 1 c.c. of hydrogen and ½ c.c. oxygen.

Ramsay determined the presence of these gases by their spectral conduct. There can be no question of Ramsay's facts, for it is to be assumed that he took the precaution of having the minute quantities of the gases obtained and those in the comparison tubes under similar pressure, although he does not make that plain. Keeler[25] has called attention to the five spectra of oxygen which differ so widely in their appearance that there is no indication that they belong to the same substance.

Perhaps the most remarkable portion of this last work of Ramsay, the full account of which, just published, reads like a story of magic, had to do with the solutions of the copper salts in which the emanation performed its devolutions. These solutions after the removal of the copper showed the presence of lithium, the smallest metallic member of the first family in the periodic classification. So careful an experimenter as Ramsay of course took precautions to prove the absence of lithium in any of the apparatus or chemicals used by blank tests.

The facts indicate decomposition, "degradation," as Ramsay put it, and not composition, synthesis. He makes no claim to what has generally been understood by the laity as transmutation, namely, the conversion of silver into gold.

The emanation, in passing through its transformations, evolves much the greater portion of the energy produced by radium and its educts. Metaphysicians, among whom are many of the most matter-of-fact men of science, have long speculated upon the constitution of matter. Time and again it has been urged that the heavy chemical elements would eventually be broken down into lighter ones. All that was needed was sufficient energy, or the right kind of energy, properly applied. Up to the time of Ramsay's work no successfully undisputed experimental facts have been offered in substantiation of these philosophic considerations. Can it be that we have Bacon's "Philosopher's stone" in the form of a storehouse of concentrated energy, the emanation?

It is evident in this limited communication that many omissions have had to be made. I have purposely avoided the complication, which would be introduced by a discussion of the attractive electronic theory of matter. Nor has there been a desire to depict the acrobatic cerebrations of French hylozoists, although Ostwald, perhaps the greatest teacher of chemistry to-day, captains the energistic propaganda.

  1. Read before the New York Section of the American Chemical Society, October 11, 1907.
  2. See Baudrimont, "Traité de Chimie," Paris, 1844.
  3. See "Introduction a une Chimie Unitaire," Paris, 1895.
  4. Archives des Sciences Physiques et Naturelles, 17, 5; Chemical News, 56, 39.
  5. Page 64; see also Kopp's, "Die Alchemie in alterer und neuerer Zeit."
  6. Chemical News, 76, 61.
  7. "Gold-yellow and Copper-colored Silver," M. C. Lea, Chemical News, 1889, 60, 54.
  8. Papers by John MacKenzie in the Spokane Mines and Electrician, February 17, 1898; and Bolton, Chemical News, 76, 61.
  9. Efforts on the part of the writer at the time failed to secure samples of argentaurum from Dr. Emmens.
  10. These matters are thoroughly discussed in a forthcoming work by the writer from the press of John Wiley and Sons.
  11. F. Fittica, Leopoldina, 36, 40; Chemiker-Zeitung, 1900, 24, 483; Chemical News, 81, 257.
  12. Berichte, 33, 1693 (1900).
  13. Poggendorfs Annalen, 31, 126.
  14. D. P. J., 226, 174.
  15. Chemiker-Zeitung, 24, 561 and 991.
  16. Chemical News, 82, 210.
  17. Berichte, 33, 2684.
  18. Chemiker-Zeitung, 24, 943.
  19. Chemiker-Zeitung, Repert, 24, 274.
  20. Chemiker-Zeitung, 25, 131.
  21. Ibid., 25, 977 and 1029.
  22. Chemical News, 96, 127 (1907).
  23. Journal Chemical Society (London), 91, 1605 (1907).
  24. Nature, 73, 389 (1906).
  25. Scientific American Supplement, 88, 977 (1894).